Research in Philosophy of Science: Space, Time and Cosmology

The project

Scientists combine different kinds of discourse within a single research program. In cosomology, scientists combine the tabulations and photographic images of astronomy and the abstract calculations of general relativity theory. They must develop strategies of combination, because science is constrained by the need for successful reference as well as for abstract, integrative, analytic theorizing: in general these demands require disparate modes of representation.


I am interested in how such combination works, why it is so fruitful, why it sometimes goes astray, and how it changes over time. I hope to complete a scholarly monograph Reference and Analysis: Time, Space and Cosmos, and to stimulate further research in "historical epistemology." Working on my earlier book Representation and Productive Ambiguity in Mathematics and the Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2007), I had come to see that productive scientific and mathematical discourse must carry out a variety of distinct discursive tasks in tandem. But it was the on-going discussions with colleagues in Paris (in 2004-5 and 2011-12) that led me to ask the deeper question, why this variety appears, which in turn led to the formulation of my current project. The reason scientists produce internally differentiated (and yet still rational) discourse is because the analysis or search for conditions of intelligibility (things) and solvability (problems) is very different from the project of achieving successful reference, the clear and public indication of what we are talking about. More abstract discourses that promote analysis, and more concrete discourses that enable reference are typically not the same, and the resultant composite text characteristic of successful scientific research will thus be heterogeneous and multivalent. My favorite example of such a text is the proof of Proposition XI, Book I of Newton's Principia.

However, this feature of scientific texts has been missed by philosophers who begin from the point of view of logic, where rationality is often equated with strict discursive homogeneity. Concepts of rationality and method have been central to philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, and epistemology itself, since Descartes wrote his Meditations at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But throughout the last century, rationality (as it is treated in Anglo-American philosophy) has been reduced to logic, and method to the organization of knowledge into axiomatic systems expressed in a formalized language. By contrast, the French tradition of philosophy of science, exemplified in the writings of Poincaré, Duhem, Meyerson, Brunschvicg, Cavaillès, Granger and Vuillemin inter alia never forgot the lessons of history. While deductive argument is important (since its forms guarantee the transmission of truth from premises to conclusion) as a guide to effective mathematical and scientific reasoning, it does not exhaust them; and an unswerving focus on logic diverts attention from other forms of rationality and demonstration.

This project was supported by a Research in Paris 2011 Grant (Senior Level), for work as a Senior Foreign Researcher at REHSEIS / SPHERE, UMR 7219 CNRS and University of Paris Denis Diderot – Paris 7, September 2011-January 2012 ($22,500).

I also organized, with the support of the Department of Philosophy, the Schreyer Honors College and the Center for Fundamental Theory at Penn State, a Workshop on Time and Complexity in Modern Cosmology with Abhay Ashtekar, John Norton, Gordon Fleming, Elie During, David Sloan, Alexis de Saint Ours, William Nelson, Bryan Roberts, and Thomas Pashby, in April 2013($5000).

I was invited to guest edit a special issue of Studia Leibnitiana (Band 44 / Heft 1) on Leibniz, Time and History.


This research has resulted in the following publications:

  1. Time and Cosmology. Special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics which I was invited to guest edit, based on a workshop I organized at Penn State, April 2013; it includes contributions by Abhay Ashtekar, John Norton, Lee Smolin, Gordon Fleming, Jeremy Butterfield, Julian Barbour, Bryan Roberts, Tom Pashby, Alexis de Saint-Ours, David Sloan and myself. Forthcoming in 2015.
  2. Leibniz, Time, and History. Special issue of Studia Leibnitiana , Band 44 / Heft 1. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013. I was invited to guest edit this issue by the editor Herbert Breger. Some of these essays were the basis of a panel discussion at the Leibniz Weltkongress, Hannover, September 2011; it includes contributions by Jean-Pascal Anfray (Ecole normale supérieure), Michael Futch (University of Tulsa), Ursula Goldenbaum (Emory University), Samuel Levey (Dartmouth), Elhanan Yakira (Hebrew University) and myself.
  3. "Models of the Skies," in Models and Inferences in Science, eds. F. Sterpetti and E. Ippoliti, Springer Verlag. Forthcoming.
  4. "Combining Referential and Analytic Modes of Representation in the Study of Large Astronomical Objects," in The Historicity of Knowledge and Things: Theoretical Perspectives at the Crossroads of History, Epistemology, and Ontology, New Directions in Philosophy of Science Series, Palgrave-Macmillan, K. Vermeir and U. Klein, eds. with Epilogue by H.-J. Rheinberger. Forthcoming.
  5. "Editor's Introduction," Special issue on Time and Cosmology, ed. E. Grosholz, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. Forthcoming in 2015.
  6. "Leibniz's Mathematical and Philosophical Analysis of Time," in Imagination, Infinity, and Continuity: Interrelations of Philosophy and Mathematics in Leibniz, D. Rabouin and N. Goethe, eds., Archimedes Series, New Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Springer Verlag. In press.
  7. "Leibniz's Metaphysics of Time and his Practice as Historian and Physicist," Proceedings of the IX Internationaler Leibniz Kongress, Hannover, Germany, September 2011, Band II, pp. 417-424. This paper is part of a three person panel, Leibniz, History and Time, which I organized; the other two presenters were Ursula Goldenbaum and Jean-Pascal Anfray.
  8. "The Representation of Time in Galileo, Newton and Leibniz: Reference and Analysis," 2010 Lovejoy Lecture, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 72, No. 3 (July 2011), pp. 333-350.
  9. "Space and Time," in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe, Desmond Clarke and Catherine Wilson, eds., Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 51-70.
  10. "Candles in the Dark: Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Somerville," review essay of Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2012), Hudson Review, Vol. LXV, No. 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 669-676.
  11. Review of Michael Futch, Leibniz's Metaphysics of Time and Space (Dordrecht and Boston: Springer Verlag, 2008). Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 48, No. 2 (April 2010), pp. 246-7.


And I have given the following presentations on these topics:

  1. "How Models Mediate between Theory and Scientific Data: Molcules, Solar Systems, Galaxies," Conference on Scientific Models, University of Rome "La Sapienza," September 2104.
  2. "Response to Alexis de Saint-Ours," Workshop on Cosmology and Time, Penn State, April 2013.
  3. Comments on Julian Barbour, Leibniz and Newton: "The Development of Machian Themes in the Twentieth Century," "The Nature of Time," "Relational Concepts of Space and Time," Ex Nihilo? Conference on Julian Barbour, Philosophy and Physics Workshop, University of Paris Denis Diderot – Paris 7, June 2012.
  4. "Leibniz, Des Bosses, Newton and the Analysis of Time as a Metaphysical Problem," Seminar on Leibniz and Des Bosses, École Normale Supérieure rue d'Ulm, Paris, December 2011.
  5. "Leibniz's Metaphysics of Time and his Practice as Historian and Physicist," panel discussion with Jean-Pascal Anfray, Ursula Goldenbaum, and myself (organizer), IX Internationaler Leibniz-Kongress, Hannover, Germany, September 2011.
  6. "Reference and Analysis in the Study of Time," panel discussion on Historical Epistemology, with Karine Chemla and Koen Vermeir (REHSEIS-SPHERE), 14th Congress of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, Nancy, France, July 2011.
  7. "Reference and Analysis: The Representation of Time by Galileo and Newton," Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos, Pennsylvania State University, October 2010.
  8. "The Representation of Time in Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz: Reference and Analysis," A. O. Lovejoy Lecture, University of Pennsylvania, April 2010.
  9. "The Representation of Time: Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz," Workshop on Intersections between Mathematics and Philosophy in the Thought of Leibniz," Ideals of Proof Interdisciplinary Project (Michael Detlefsen and David Rabouin), Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Paris Diderot – Paris 7 / REHSEIS / Collège de France / University of Nancy, March 2010.
  10. "The Representation of Time in 19th and 20th c. Mechanics," Seminar on Modes, Levels, and Orders of Description in the Physical Sciences, REHSEIS / University of Paris Diderot – Paris 7 / CNRS, March 2010.
  11. "The Representation of Time: Awareness, Mathematics, and the Puzzle of Asymmetry," Department of History of Science, Medicine and Technology, University of Wisconsin / Madison, October 2009; and Philosophy Department, University of Minnesota, October 2009.
  12. "Plato, Leibniz, Analysis, and History," Philosophy Department, De Paul University, Chicago, October 2008.